Winding our way down from Munnar to sea level the sky gradually shifts from blue to milk white. Not white like creamy full fat milk – more like the water-downed milk I remember from childhood. The milk I drank at Mrs. Dietrich’s kitchen table when I was a kid was so fresh and warm from the cow that she served it to her daughter and me on ice. As the ice melted the milk became thin and pale. That’s the color of the sky as we descend from Munnar.
Birdsong has disappeared. In its place are the blaring horns that sound like a million trumpets searching for the right key. Bass notes rumble from trucks and busses while the staccato sputter of three-wheeled auto-rickshaws adds rhythm. It’s a discordant lullaby for Ben, who easily falls asleep in the back seat. I can’t sleep. There’s too much color and life and I want to see it all.
Women wrapped in colorful sarees ride side-saddle on scooters while on the road’s shoulder ancient men wrapped in lungis tucked in above their knees push carts balanced on bicycle wheels and piled high with wares.
In India, driving is a skill left to the fearless. An art form only for the brave. There are no discernible lanes on the roads and when by chance there is a stretch painted with a thin white line that line is largely ignored. Traffic flows only with the overtaking of slower vehicles. Drivers pass one another on curves, hills and in defiance of any vehicle, no matter how large, racing toward them from the opposite direction. Negotiating small villages requires dodging pedestrians and the gentle street dogs that roam in small packs. Vehicles braid their way through intersections without stopping.
And somehow, for the most part, it all kind of works.
It would be easy to believe drivers who overtake on curves or don’t stop at intersections have a careless and cavalier attitude toward life. But I don’t believe that. I believe the one single rule of the road that informs Indian traffic is a healthy attitude toward death. The acceptance of what we don’t know – the time or place of our demise – is a freeing thing.
We’re on our way to the backwaters of Kerala, to a place called Alleppey. From there we’ll spend a day and one night aboard a houseboat on Lake Vembanad.
The four hour drive from Munnar to Alleppey is long and hot and bumpy but when we arrive at the houseboat all of that is forgotten. For the rest of the afternoon and into the first part of the next morning we’ll be on the longest lake in Kerala. We’re in a traditional houseboat. It moves almost without sound. I can hear the lapping of water and once again the sound of birds calling to one another. There’s an immense variety of bird life here – brahminy kites that look like bald eagles, kingfishers, parrots, flycatchers, darters, cormorants, egrets and herons all greet us as we move through the waters.
The lake is life and livelihood for the people who live along its edge. Children are ferried home from school in wooden boats. Women wash clothes while their kids play in its waters. At sunrise lone fishermen, silhouetted in their small canoes by the red dawn, make their way to where they hope will be the day’s best catch.
I feel like an intruder. My Western sensibilities can not imagine what life is like for the people who live on the lake. Life means something different here, something I can’t define or experience. I’m a visitor – welcome or unwelcome – who will soon return to central heating, paved roads and hot water on demand.
But I am swallowed up in the beauty of it all. I envy their connection to the water and the land. As I continue to watch and steal photos of people’s lives I consider how we all love and hate, live and die, work and rest, smile and mourn. Maybe the woman pounding wet clothes on cement and I have something the same inside. Different hopes but still hope. Different fears but still fear.
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